Sutro Tower casts an ominous shadow on the neighborhood

West Portal MONTHLY, December, 1997
(quoted with permission)

By Carol Dimmick

Residents living in the shadow of Sutro Tower - already wary of possible health effects from higher-than-average concentrations of radio waves emitted by the communications facility - are now contending with the question of the tower's structural integrity with the proposed addition of an HDTV antenna. Some experts say the gargantuan structure will be perfectly safe. Others aren't so sure.

After a two-month review, the SF Dept. of Building Inspection has designated Sutro Tower an "essential facility," triggering a review of structural upgrades currently underway on the tower. The department was asked to evaluate the project after receiving a request from Bob Passmore, zoning director for the SF Planning Dept., who says he acted in response to safety concerns raised by residents.

The decision was announced by Jim Hutchinson, deputy director for the SF Department of Building Inspection. According to Hutchinson, the ruling will only apply to the reinforcement and placement of an antenna dish and will not include a full dynamic analysis of the tower structure.

"Legally we can't do more than this," said Hutchinson. However, Hutchinson says that the department will ask Sutro Tower to recalculate the current work being performed to see if its complies with the higher building code requirements for an essential facility.

"Debra Stein, president of GCA Strategies and lobbyist for Sutro Tower, seemed puzzled by the department's decision. According to Stein the question of Sutro Tower complying with building code requirements for an essential facility came up weeks ago when Hutchinson approached her about the matter.

"I sent a letter to Jim Hutchinson at least two weeks ago when this came up saying Sutro Tower meets and exceeds the standards for an essential service facility," explained Stein. And, according to Stein any additional recalculation would be unnecessary because figures already supplied to the department show the work being performed more than meets the higher code requirements for an essential facility.

Residents, who were initially pleased the decision and called it a victory for public safety, became skeptical when the details came out.

"I'm surprised, I don't understand how you consider an appendage to a structure an essential facility and not the tower itself," responded Nancy Hogan, president of the Twin Peaks Improvement Association. Hogan declined to say if the association plans to file an appeal.

The question of public safety came up in mid-September when Hogan, and others, cried foul to Bob Passmore, zoning director for the Planning Dept. Residents complained to Passmore that structural modifications to the tower currently underway were primarily for the purpose of installing digital antenna for High Definition Television (HDTV) and not for safety purposes as claimed by the project sponsor. In addition, residents told Passmore the proposed structural upgrades were inadequate for public safety.

Along with Hogan, Lloyd Cluff, chairman of the California Seismic Safety Commission and a nearby resident, warned the Planning Department in August about the importance of using new scientific data in an analysis of Sutro Tower.

"It would be foolhardy to add a major new 125-foot beam to the tower without considering new data from the Loma Prieta, Northridge and Kobe earthquakes," wrote Cluff to the department. Cluff argued for a "full dynamic analysis", saying the effects of typographic ground-motion amplification and near-source directivity should be considered before the project moves forward.

In fact, Cluff persuaded John Osteraas, principal engineer at Failure Analysis Associates in Menlo Park, a company that regularly performs the type of analysis Cluff believes is necessary, to donate his services for the project.

Last month, the University of California at Berkeley undertook a seismic analysis of its facilities using the newer techniques which utilize data from the Kobe, Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes and found 57 buildings that need additional seismic retrofitting at a projected cost of $700 million.

As part of its review of the upgrades, in mid-November the Department of Building Inspection sent a memo to the City Attorney requesting assistance on 10 items. According to Laurence Cornfield, chief building inspector for the SF Department of Building Inspection, the department considered a whole host of issues, including whether state or federal standards exist which could be applied to the tower.

host of issues, including whether state or federal standards exist which could be applied to the tower. Cornfield also says the City Attorney was asked to look at the issue of whether the installation of a digital antenna is a change in use from the use granted in the original conditional use permit, which residents have long claimed is the case. And, according to Hutchinson, it was at that time the department began to consider whether the tower could qualify as an "essential service facility".

Under California and local code requirements, structures termed "essential" to the city are held to higher standards than those required under the current permit issued by the department for structural upgrades currently underway on the tower.

A check of the most recent list of buildings designated as "essential service facilities" by the City reveals that although numerous hospitals, schools and other private and city buildings are considered "essential" in an emergency, not a single communications facility made the list.

A recent inventory of tenants at Sutro Tower shows that in addition to 10 television stations which serve the Bay Area, the FBI, SF Police Department, California Highway Patrol and the UC Police Department have communications systems which operate from the tower.

Frank Lucia, F.C.C. spokesperson for the Emergency Alert System, calls Sutro Tower a "significant facility in terms of the system." Lucia points out that "if for some reason that facility (Sutro Tower) would fall down what would we be left with?"

Jim Gabbert, owner of KOFY (Channel 20) and state chairman of the Emergency Alert System, calls Sutro Tower "the most important tower in America." Gabbert says the tower was instrumental to state and local officials during the 1989 earthquake, recent floods and other emergencies, and is unique because it reaches the hearing impaired.

"You would lose a lot of lives if that thing (Sutro Tower) went down," predicted Gabbert.

Designating Sutro Tower as an essential facility should not take the place of public review, according to Reed Super, attorney the Twin Peaks Improvement Association and the Midtown Terrace Homeowners Association. Super maintains the structural upgrades should never have been separated from the environmental impact report currently under review by the Planning Department.

"The permits (for the structural upgrade and hanging of the digital antenna) should never have been issued by the Planning Department," says Super. "The structural upgrades are part of the environmental issues and should be part of the public review process," added Super.

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